Our congregation recently sent some congregants off on their first trip to Israel with a tefilat haderkekh — a prayer for a safe journey:
Holy One of Blessing,
Even though we know You are everywhere,
when we journey toward the Holy Land —
we expect — we hope — You will be easier to find there ...
But I wonder why that is?
No sooner had our friends arrived in Israel than news reached us of Jewish women again arrested for praying out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, considered by many to be Judaism’s most holy site. These monthly women’s prayer services — ongoing since 1988, when an earnest group of women thought to read from a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Wall — have been the source of controversy and sometimes violence. This month the arresting police officer said the “crime” was reciting the Shema out loud and wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) — something Jews of all genders do daily without challenge all over the world — and he led away Women of the Wall founder Anat Hoffman to spend a long, cold night in a Jerusalem jail cell.
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (the Hebrew title ironically means “the life of Sarah”), opens with the poignant picture of our patriarch Abraham standing over the body of his dead wife, his beloved Sarah, and “Abraham wails for Sarah and he weeps for her (lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah).”
Abraham stays his mourning long enough to purchase from the Hitites a place to bury Sarah. That place is the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, where father Abraham himself will be buried at the end of this Torah portion, thus making this place yet another holy site not only to Jews, but also to Muslims, who trace their lineage back to Abraham through his first son, Ishmael. Elsewhere in Genesis we learn that our ancestors Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are also buried there.
But the story of Machpelah, and the town of Hebron where it is found, hardly tells a tale of an eternal resting place. Although Jews and Muslims have managed to pray there for generations, Machpelah is storied with violence between them, including two notorious incidents. In 1929, Arabs murdered 67 Jews at prayer there; and in 1994, Jewish doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125 others.
Journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, in his 2001 book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” writes movingly of the symbolism and reality of Machpelah. He includes the Jewish legend that places the entry into the Garden of Eden in the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham met Adam and Eve after following a river of light into the cave. Although after the Goldstein massacre, Klein Halevi writes: “For me, the Machpelah was no longer an entrance back into the Garden, but only its exit.”
Abraham’s tears over Sarah at Hebron seem to foreshadow the tears shed there in the generations to come.
Today, the Shabbat on which Jews read Chayei Sarah has become known by some as Shabbat Hebron, and, in recent years, Jews by the thousands make pilgrimage there on this Shabbat, with a strictly enforced separation between Jewish men and women, and not without outbursts between Jews and the Muslims who live there. Last year on Shabbat Hebron, police intervened when settlers threw stones at the home of a Palestinian prisoner released in the deal to free kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. And among the many blog posts on the joy of being there for Shabbat Hebron come some from women feeling excluded and alienated from their tradition.
There remains no shortage in our day (indeed, perhaps it is growing) of conflict in our Holy Land — Jews versus Jews, men versus women, Jews versus Muslims, Israelis versus Palestinians. The future remains ever uncertain, especially in the week of presidential elections in the United States and just a few months before early elections in Israel.
But on this Shabbat Chayei Sarah, in this interim before the results of the elections are fully known, as we read of the quiet, dignified deaths in old age of our matriarch Sarah and patriarch Abraham, and especially when we read that “Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him at the Cave of Machpelah” (Genesis 25:9), let’s take a lesson from the coming together of these two brothers and begin our own search for what our tradition lovingly describes as a river of light that will lead us — together — through the Cave of Machpelah and into the Garden of Eden.
Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.